There are two types of skiers in the ski world. Well, in reality there are far more but when it comes to choosing a ski resort there are those that think bigger really is better and book only large, snow sure resorts with ever faster ski lifts and expansive linked ski domains. And then there are those skiers who prefer a more homegrown, local style of ski resort where the gondolas move at their own pace and, more often than not, local skiers outnumber visiting ones.
Until recently, I fell firmly into the first camp, favouring high altitude resorts with enough runs to ensure that I could spend a week on skis and not tackle the same piste twice. But then I spent a weekend in Monts Jura, in France’s Pays de Gex region, and happily conceded that less can sometimes be more.
The Pays de Gex region sits sandwiched between Lake Geneva and the ancient Jura Mountains. In the southern corner, Monts Jura offers three alpine ski domains and a Nordic ski area, La Vattay-Valserine, used as a training ground by champions. The domains are not linked and none of them are especially large (the biggest, Lélex-Crozet, has just 21km of pistes) but they are incredibly charming, offering an old school ski experience rarely found in the A list resorts.
I flew into Geneva one Friday evening in late January with a small group of fellow skiers all eager to hit the slopes. Shortly after exiting the airport on the French side and hopping into our transfer then we were on our way, driving past the CERN Hadron Collider before arriving in Lélex-Crozet. This, the closest of the ski domains to Geneva, can be reached in just 20 minutes making it an ideal destination for a quick weekend ski break.
Our arrival coincided with the first proper snowfall in weeks, so we weren’t the only ones queuing for the lift – the locals were out in force ready to carve tracks – but once we bypassed the bottleneck at the bottom then we were whisked up to Monthoisey at 1,680m and rewarded with sublime views. The Alps can boast some impressive vistas at times but it’s not often that you get the chance to ski with the glassy blue waters of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc in the distance.
That morning we tackled a handful of runs, enjoying the freshly fallen snow and uncrowded pistes. Despite the enthusiastic group gathered at the gondola below, the runs were largely empty. This kind of crowd-free skiing is the perfect place if you are still getting your ski legs, giving beginners the space to build confidence and technique.
Just before lunch we skied down Oiellettes, a perfectly groomed red run that took us almost all the way into the village of Lélex. This ended up being not only my favourite run of the day but unfortunately also our last. The blustery winds of the morning had transformed into 40km-hour winds forcing the gondola to close. Still, the unexpected pause in skiing allowed us to stop for lunch at Le Centre and enjoy a glass of the famous Jura Vin Jaune (yellow wine). Similar to dry sherry, the Vin Jaune makes a good tipple for accompanying the other local favourite, Bleu de Gex cheese.
That afternoon, with the gondola still well and truly fermé, we visited Voltaire’s Chateau, where the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher lived for 20 years writing the Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary) while here. It was a less traditional après-ski activity than I’m used to but enjoyable nevertheless. More in keeping with your typical post-ski entertainment, however, was a trip to Brasserie Gessienne. This local craft brewery is run by a husband-and-wife team and uses wheat and barley grown locally to create their eight different tasty beers.
The winds had died down the following morning, which meant we could explore the village of Mijoux-La Faucille. This area is well known for its extensive nordic ski tracks and a biathlon festival was taking place in the village when we arrived, with patient ESF instructors on hand to aid novice cross-country skiers such as ourselves.
After a comical couple of hours slipping and sliding along on pencil-thin skis I swapped back to alpine skis and was instantly more comfortable. Like Lélex-Crozet, Mijoux-La Faucille only has a smattering of blue and red runs, but the tree-lined slopes offer some fantastic skiing. The resort also has a mountain coaster and an exhilarating 1km-long zipline, the steepest in France. Unlike some other resort ziplines, at this one you carry your skis down with you in a special back harness. This makes for some initial faffing as you get ready but means you don’t have to make your way up the mountain again post-flight.
That evening we meet Nicolas Guitton, a mountain guide and member of the Brotherhood of the pale blue beret and cloaking-wearing Bleu de Gex. This fraternity of brothers has been in existence since the 14th century, ensuring that the traditions and quality of the region’s famous blue cheese remains unchanged.
Our renedez-vous with Nicolas didn’t involve cheese until much later, however. Instead, we strapped on snowshoes, positioned our headtorches and set off at a pace, trying to keep up with Nicolas as he raced up the inky black mountain through a thick blanket of snow. After two hours of walking, we eventually reached our destination, a rustic wooden barn used to house Nicolas’ Comtois horses, an old breed of local horse bred for pulling heavy loads in the mountains. Nicolas is the only person left in Jura using this unique breed of horse.
Positioned in a makeshift mezzanine level about the main barn area was a small room, lit by candles, where our guide proceeded to prepare a rich, creamy fondue. Ravenous after our forest hike, we quickly tucked in, dipping chunks of fresh baguette into the iron pot as Nicolas regaled stories of life in the mountains. Much like the rest of our weekend in Monts Jura, this was a uniquely authentic mountain experience proving once again that less, really can be more.
For more information about Pays de Gex Tourism visit www.paysdegex-tourisme.com
Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Geneva Airport priced from €91/£80 with British Airways
A seven-night stay at Bois Joly Hotel in Crozet, starting 5 March 2023, costs from £278.5/€318.4 pp based on two sharing a standard room (one Double bed)
A one-night stay at Novotel Gèneve Airport France, starting 20 March 2023, costs from £41 pp based on two sharing a Classic room (one Double bed, one sofa bed).
A one-day adult ski pass for the Monts Jura area costs €35 in high season 2022/23
A seven-day adult ski pass for the Monts Jura area costs €196/ £172 in high season 2022/23
Sport 2000 – Le Tiapi (Mijoux) – €30.6/£26.7 per day for ski and boot hire
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